It’s the story of a high-society family that values wealth and financial success above all else. So when the family’s favored daughter brings her new and “proper” fiancé home to meet everyone, he seems to be the perfect fit. That is until he announces he doesn’t care about making it in the business world and would rather drop out of society and travel the world to “find himself.” Everyone is shocked and outraged except the family’s other daughter—the black sheep who has rejected the materialistic trappings around her and longs for something more fulfilling.
If I told you the plot I just described is from a film about an Asian American family, there’s a good chance you’d believe me. But it’s actually from Holiday, a 1938 screwball comedy classic starring Cary Grant as the newcomer who wants to find himself and Katharine Hepburn as the black sheep daughter who falls in love with Grant a.k.a. her own sister’s fiancé. Adapted from the hit Broadway play by Philip Barry, director George Cukor’s film ranks as one of the best pairings of its two stars who had also starred together earlier that same year in another screwball comedy classic, Bringing Up Baby.
I first saw Holiday about two decades ago at a young and impressionable age and my initial reaction was that the family in the film felt very Asian American. That’s not to say that all Asian Americans are only concerned with material success but I saw many of my fellow Asian American peers being pushed into future careers in medicine, law, business and other paths that would not only offer financial stability but the promise of great wealth. The values that these Asian American families held dear were the same values that Hepburn’s family in the film treasured. And I could identify with the black sheep status of Grant and Hepburn’s characters because as someone who wanted to be a writer, I knew what it meant to not fit into that world.
When Harry Met Sally…, a fine example of a modern heir to the tradition of classic comedies that Holiday represented, was released around the same time I was introduced to Holiday and seeing those two movies back-to-back made me first start thinking about the possibility of creating genre work starring Asian Americans. Why couldn’t a comedy like Holiday be made with Asian American characters at its core? You wouldn’t even have to change much since the family in the film already embodied the essence and spirit of the Asian American families I knew—maybe the last names and some cultural details at most would need to be changed.
I was lucky to sort of get the chance to do just that with my latest play Grace Kim & The Spiders From Mars. I really wanted to do a modern version of those old screwball romantic comedies but with an Asian American cast so I went right back to Holiday for my inspiration. My play was by no means a remake or close to the 1938 film in any way except for the basic plot—good sister brings fiancé home to meet her family and he makes a surprise announcement about his future that shocks everyone except the black sheep sister who realizes she is falling in love with him—but Grace Kim… would most certainly not have existed if I never saw Holiday at that impressionable young age.
Working on the play made me realize how much I love working in specific genres. I love how each genre has its own clear rules and boundaries, but that within that you really have the freedom to create something that will allow you to potentially connect to the audience with much more efficiency. Tackling a genre like the romantic comedy where Asian Americans are rarely represented was also a lot of fun and liberating and I owe a big debt of gratitude to Holiday for opening my eyes to such possibilities.